Music Q&A: Maza Blaska

Hailing from Columbus, Maza Blaska’s 2011 debut, Storyteller, was a colorful, jangly excursion of earthy, world-flavored orchestrations. Storyteller was rich in narrative, shrouded in tales of far-off lands and ancient roots that were offset by the rosy pop of their six member multi-instrumental arrangements.

Brite Winter Fest talks to Sam Corlett about how the band got together, performing with their rotating cast of collaborators, and their first time in Cleveland.

Maza Blaska originally formed between you two, Yoni and Sam. How did the rest of the band fall together?

I love remembering how we all came together, there were a lot of great culminating circumstances that led to Maza Blaska forming as a full band.  When Yoni studied abroad in Jerusalem in 2008, he set out
Yoni posted his work on Myspace, where he received a lot of feedback from friends who were interested in what he would do with the music when he returned to Columbus.  I remember getting excited about the potential of a group when Kyle Charles, who had played bass with Yoni in the past, wrote that he liked the songs.  He’s been with us and supportive of the music and our vision from the very beginning.with a plan to write and record a demo of his music.  I was back home in Columbus, serving as a sounding board resource and occasionally recording vocal harmonies at home to be built into the songs.  When a collection of material began to form, it was Yoni’s intention to bring those songs back to Columbus to play with a full band of performers.  Him and I had fallen in love playing music together in the Spring and Summer before he left for Israel.  I was in a rock band at the time (Karate Coyote), and Yoni and I had an acoustic act that we called The Curiosities.  We wanted to take the Curiosities to the level of intensity that the rock band I was playing in had, because we knew our music was good and would be even better with more players, especially a slammin’ rhythm section.  We wanted that energy and to develop the songs in that way.

Our first drummer was Tim Murray, a good friend of ours who I have always thought was the most entertaining drummer to watch because his personalty really came out.   Watching him and hearing him play was always really exciting for us, but he had just gotten married and was expecting his first child, so our time was limited.  We liked the idea of Maza Blaska becoming an open ensemble, which made it easy for us to convince a large number and wide variety of players to jam, record, and play shows with us- because there was little commitment and lots of fun.  The songs really changed over time, thinking back- they have had many different arrangements and forms.  Structuring the band in a way where Yoni and I were the bandleaders, teaching our songs to different players, learning and writing new parts, witnessing incredible musicianship from old and new friends; it gave Maza Blaska its own collective culture that we were creating together.  A lot of our members, past and present, play in other bands or as solo artists.  We were longtime fans of our friends’ music — especially of Blake Miller, Ryan Dyson, Tyler Evans, & Dane Terry — and we were eager to play with them.

In the winter of 2010, Eddie Ashworth, a professor of Sound Recording and Engineering at Ohio University offered to record a few of our songs for a class he was teaching, in exchange for being a resource to the students.  We were ecstatic and we began recruiting musicians to help us make the songs all they could possibly be.  We had never had the luxury of time in a professional recording environment and we were transforming the songs from a one-man-band recording to something much more orchestral.  I still can’t believe how many tracks we put on Storyteller, it’s incredible.  Eddie really let us run wild with our imaginations.  James Robertson joined the band to help us make that record, Tim’s son was born and Jay was the ideal replacement.  The core of the band really formed when Jay joined, because the five of us (Yoni, Blake, Kyle & I) really clicked and played well together.  I think of the glory days of Maza Blaska being when we had 12 people on the stage, trying to re-create the magic we made on the record.  It’s insane though, having 12 people play together.  Although the energy is through the roof, it can also be a runaway train.  Over time we learned to edit ourselves and our live show.  Some of the amazing ensemble players moved to other cities and we were ready to be a touring band.

You have six permanent members and a rotating cast of collaborators. How does all that instrumentation translate live? Favorite or most challenging parts of live shows?

The challenging part of live shows for us was letting the song really come through.  Last fall, we decided to rethink how to approach our live shows, we wanted to try something different.  Maza Blaska has always been a songwriting collaboration between Yoni and I, and we have refocused and are trying to get back to letting the songs really shine through.  Not having a rhythm section at first was difficult, and we’re experimenting with new methods and new ensemble collaborators.  Yoni works for Jeni’s Ice Creams, who recently paid some employees to form a band and record an album, and we’ve met some amazing new musicians from that project.  This Friday we’re playing with Joshua Hunt on drums (a dream come true), and Jesse Remnant on bass (we are huge fans of his band, Human Cannonball).  At Brite Winter, it’s a surprise.  We’re hoping for a special guest.

Your 2011 album was titled Storyteller. Between all the instrumentation of Maza Blaska, what is your songwriting process and some of the themes or stories that found their way into your narratives? 

A lot of the songs on Storyteller came together during our recording process.  We had Yoni’s demo “White Stone” to work from, and those songs had narratives generally relating to his time in Israel.  Since then, I feel like our songs still often relate to distant places, we are inspired by those ideas.  The human experience, love, feeling free; these are individual, personal, and invented narratives that intrigue me.

Where does that appreciation for world-flavored and multi-instrumental arrangement come from? Especially as a band from the Midwest! Any early influences, musical or cultural background, current influences, or life experiences like traveling? I know Yoni spent some time in Jerusalem.
For me, most of my favorite artists utilize multi-instrumental arrangements and have some sort of cultural feel of either a sample or style that they are showcasing or a genuine atmospheric feeling of a place they are writing about or coming from.  I attach mostly to singers who have a lot of different musical elements going on behind the vocals.  My favorite singer is Ella Fitzgerald, but I’m also a big Talking Heads fan — I feel like there are some similarities there if you look hard enough — but that I am interested in a wide dynamic variety of sounds and expressions of culture.  Storyteller will always remind me of going camping in the woods in Toronto, of Yoni being in Israel, and me going to visit him there and seeing the amazing landscape.  We named the album Storyteller because we felt like our story was hidden in the songs on that first album.

Since releasing 2011’s Storyteller, have you been working on any new material? If so, can you tell us a little about it and maybe what you’ve drawn on for your writing over the past year and anything else the band is up to?

We have some new songs and are continuing to work with our producer, Eddie Ashworth at his home studio, The Oxide Shed in Athens, Ohio.  Recently, the more stripped down version of Maza Blaska really lets the songs breathe and speak for themselves.  We still imagine ourselves as an ensemble, because we love the open environment created in a good jam; we love playing with other people and experiencing the dynamic changes between the different combinations of musicians.  We are really happy to be playing in Cleveland for the first time at Brite Winter- and hope  to return and perform in the area many more times this year.


Maza Blaska plays at Midnight at Loren Naji Studio Gallery. Keep up with the band on Facebook and Tumblr.

Leave a Reply